The founders of a Pentecostal megachurch who converted to Catholicism talk to Francis Phillips about faith, secularism and the abuse crisis
Having blogged last week about Ulf and Birgitta Ekman’s book, The Great Discovery: Our Journey into the Catholic Church, I was keen to ask them a few questions. Ulf, as I related in my earlier blog, had been the founder and pastor of Word of Life, a worldwide Pentecostal church of over 200,000 members. What was his and Birgitta’s relationship with Word of Life now that they are Catholics?
Ulf explains that Word of Life “is a large network, but if we are talking about friends and co-workers in Uppsala where I was the pastor, we have succeeded in maintaining a good relationship with many of them. With others, it is polite but not so warm and in yet other cases our relationships are still rather frosty.” He adds emphatically, “However, we do believe in the importance of pursuing a loving unity in Spirit and truth.”
I remind him that in his book he referred to “secular Sweden”. How would he describe the religious scene in Sweden today? Ulf reflects: “There is a post-modern openness about religion and spirituality here, but when it comes to organised Christianity it is not so open. However, the visit of Pope Francis, the canonisation of the Swedish Bridgettine, Saint Elizabeth Hasselblad and finally, our Bishop Arborelius being created a cardinal all in one year has created a new curiosity and put the Catholic Church on the spiritual map in Sweden.”
I point out that living in Sweden, the Ekmans live on the fringes of the wider Catholic community; how important are their links to the wider Church? Ulf is clear that these links are “of great importance to us. We are deeply grateful to the Lord for leading us into the Church!” He points out to me that “Sweden was once a Catholic country for about 500 years, before the Reformation, and we do believe there are ‘Catholic seeds’ in the ground that will sprout more and more. We draw much inspiration also from the international scene. Catholicity is a fascinating phenomenon.”
I tell the Ekmans I was interested in the remark of Cardinal Arborelius in his Foreword to their book concerning aspects of faith that Catholics “have forgotten or neglected to develop”, such as a more personal relationship with Jesus, missionary zeal and more familiarity with the Bible. I am curious to know whether, as converts, they feel they are able to have a positive influence in these areas of Catholic practice.
Ulf answers readily that “We believe so, and agree with our Cardinal. Since our conversion we have had many opportunities to speak to Catholics in Sweden and in other nations, even as far away as Kazakhstan and Australia. When we do this we see that our Catholic brothers and sisters seem to be encouraged.” He adds, “We feel that we can bring some of our experiences with us and that they are valuable.”
I am reminded that the Ekmans joined the Church in 2014, before the current unhappy scandals in the Church were revealed. How have they been affected by them? Ulf responds immediately, “Of course, these scandals grieve us deeply! They must be dealt with and we trust that they will. We pray! And we remind ourselves that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. We also remind ourselves that this is the time that the Lord directed us into the Church, so we trust in Him.”
Finally, I am keen to know about the Ekmans’ Catholic life today and how it has developed since 2014. They respond that they are “happy and content and actually quite busy. We have moved to Stockholm and now belong to the Cathedral parish and serve there in different ways when we are not travelling.” They remind me that “Life is an adventure and that there is still so much more to learn about Christ and His Church.”